Sounds Foreign to My Ear

Phoreign Phrases

By Jeff Salter

We’re studying foreign phrases this week and after Janette’s list on Tuesday, I didn’t think I had anything to add.

Then I remembered a phrase my Dad used to say, occasionally: comme ci comme ça.  Of course, as a youngster, I thought he was saying, “Come see, come saw” — which made no sense at all. Later I learned it means (literally) “like this, like that”. My Internet sources varied, but I think it’s French [though some say it’s Spanish, adapted from French]. Colloquially, it means “either way” or “so-so” or “neither good nor bad”. Or, to translate it to an expression I often hear these days, “six of one, half dozen of another”.

About the only foreign expression I use often is geshundheit … in response to a sneeze. The literal German translation is supposedly “good health” … but for many years I thought it meant “bless you” (which is what most Americans say when somebody sneezes). Interestingly, the other day a friend sneezed and I said “geshundheit” — to which she replied, “My goodness, I haven’t heard that in years! Everybody says ‘bless you’ these days.”

I don’t use these, but I think they’re cool

Here are a few expressions I don’t actually use, but I think it would be cool to find myself in a situation (or proper context) within which it would sound normal.

Just as ALOHA supposedly can be used interchangeably for “hello” or “goodbye” — CIAO (Italian) can be used for either. I like the economy of having one word with two opposite applications. I suppose if you’re walking backwards at the moment, it could be confusing!

I don’t know if this occurs in real life (in Italy) but in movies, when Italians answer the phone, they often say, “PRONTO.” It does not seem to directly correlate to my use of “hello” — it seems more to indicate, “proceed”. [Though in American parlance, it seems to mean, “hurry”.]  Conversely, when you’re through with that phone conversation (in Italy) – at least in the movies – you may find yourself saying, “Ciao.”

Also in Italian use (so say the movies), when somebody knocks at your door, you might respond, “AVANTI.” Its literal translation seems to be something along the lines of “ahead” or “forward” … but colloquially it seems to mean “enter”.

One more Italian word before I shift gears. Before PREGO was a spaghetti sauce, it was an Italian word meaning, “it matters little” or something to that effect. Though its colloquial application would compare to my use of the words, “you’re welcome.”

Doris Day’s Spanish Philosophy

Popularized (in the U.S.) after the Hitchcock movie, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” – the remake with James Stewart – this expression entered my consciousness with Doris Day’s solo, “Qué Será Será.” Frankly, I was sick of the song, which she sang a full THREE times in that movie, but I was intrigued by the expression. Miss Day translated it in the song as “what will be, will be,” but I don’t think that’s the exact literal translation (though close enough). But I remember asking my Mom what did THAT (“what will be, will be”) mean? To a grade school kid, it’s a bit vague. My Mom said it meant “whatever is going to happen will happen, so don’t worry about it.” Not sure how accurate that is, but I can see why Miss Day shortened it — would have ruined the flow of her melody.

Pardon My French

This really isn’t a foreign expression, of course, but it tickles my fancy because it almost NEVER refers to anything French, unless you were saying, “merde” or something similar. As everyone knows, “pardon my French” actually means, “I’m about to use a cuss word, so don’t be shocked.”


What foreign words or phrases do you use? Which ones do you find particular appealing? Particularly offensive?




About jeff7salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Twelve completed novels and five completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015, "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015, "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015, "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014, "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014, "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014, "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014, "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013, "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013, "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013, "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012, "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012. Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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16 Responses to Sounds Foreign to My Ear

  1. Iris B says:

    LOL re the Gesundheit (health), it’s the short version for “I wish you health” … is all.
    Liked the Italian ones, I always thought pronto pronto means “hurry up” … there you go … btw … another German one (although not 100% sure), for hurry up, I’d say here “Zack Zack” 🙂

    Oh well … merde … I obviously NEVER use any of these words in ANY language 😉

    PS – Everyone’s saying Que sera here at the moment with another Boy Band having a big hit with the same title … A nice song actually 🙂


    • jeff7salter says:

      I love “zack zack” — need to work that into my vocab.
      I’ve heard a British version of that directive to hustle: “pip pip” (or something similar)


  2. Theresa says:

    I live in an area where there are so many phrases that come from French or some Cajun or Creole dialect (obviously I’m no linguistic expert) that it would be hard to start winnowing them down. Two that spring to mind, and again, these are only regional, so not really what you want but when we’re feeling a lack of energy, just lazy and dragged out, we say we have the paresse. Roll the R, and accent on the last syllable. The other one is that when we have a particular craving for something, usually a certain kind of food, we have an envie for that. First syllable rhymes with the first syllable of francais and second is vee. It’s a good word.


  3. I have no idea when the phase “Ciao” came into use , let alone when it started being the Italian equivalent of Aloha; My mother would not acknowledge it as a word at all for decades, and then she purposely made it into a silly phrase which made no sense that she used with my nieces when they were young.When my sister and I cold take no more of it, she quit, and by the time she died at 83, she finally accepted that it was, indeed, a casual word that might be used for “goodbye”, but I never dared to use it.(Maybe she heard Sinatra use it!)


  4. Quilly says:

    que is Spanish for “what” sera is the future tense of “be” so, literally, “What will be, will be.”

    As to aloha, it is not just “hello” and “good-bye”. The traditional use of the word encompasses welcome and love — unconditional good-will — and was reserved for family or friends (ohana) as close as family.


    • jeff7salter says:

      It may have been Steve McGarret who pulled it out of the use by family & friends … and got everybody saying it!


    • Theresa says:

      Ahhh, thanks for saving me the trouble of looking up que sera, which I had planned to do. I could kind of see the roots of it, but I prefer having the exact meaning, not to mention the language!


  5. pjharjo says:

    I haven’t heard it in awhile, but I always thought it was “come see, come saw,” too! LOL! Thanks for the fun post, Jeff!


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